Be honest, do you allow your child to do simple tasks independently? Or do you anxiously watch their every move? Arlene Harris looks at how to encourage independence so that parents can help their child to fend for themselves.
When you first clap eyes on your helpless bundle of joy, it seems inconceivable that the little infant in your arms will one day be fending for themselves and heading off, unaccompanied into the big, bad world. But as the mother of three strapping boys, I know only too well how quickly that day comes around and they turn from mewling little scraps into young men who I literally have to look up to.
It can be hard to cut the apron strings, particularly for those on their first and last child but teaching your children to be independent is one of the greatest gifts you can give them – whether it is learning to tie their laces or how to prepare their own meals at college, every lesson should be given with the knowledge that you arming your child with skills that will help him to make the most of his future.
Independence starts early
Child psychologist, Peadar Maxwell says parents begin teaching independence from the moment their babies are born – smiling, interacting and touching are the first steps in relating to others, enjoying fulfilling relationships and feeling secure and confident.
“Parents begin to teach their children the joy of interaction right from the beginning and then graduate to teaching a child to hold objects independently and to do small tasks on their own,” he says. “They then progress to teaching and mastering various skills and tasks to a point where children have an age-appropriate sense of independence. Each time we teach our child a new task we boost their confidence and sense of well-being.”
Maxwell says encouraging independence is positive but it is important not to push children into doing things they are not ready for. “Teaching your child to be a confident and competent member of society is invaluable,” he says. “To avoid being pushy, parents are advised to go at the child’s pace. Each parent knows their child and decides what their child needs to be able to do. This is not just about age or what school year your child is in; it is about your child’s personal circumstances.
These can include their general ability or maturity or demands that are unique to your family. “If we want to raise confident and competent children we need to be their mentors. We should teach children to problem solve, to make decisions, to show affection and respect and praise their efforts by describing what they have done that has impressed or pleased you.”
Little milestones at the baby/toddler stage can seem momentous and the Dublin-based psychologist offers advice on helping your child achieve his goals:
1. Playing happily by themselves in a childproof room
While children need supervision it is important for them to be able to amuse themselves. Assuming the parent has considered the child’s safety they can play in the next room or in a hallway. Set them up with a game, toys or a puzzle and check in on them every so often or comment on the fact that they are playing nicely. Attention given before it is demanded goes a long way to help a child to tolerate being on their own. But remember they crave and need company so should not be left to their own devices too often.
2. Moving from cot to bed
Families vary so much about when a child moves to a ‘big bed’. Unless there is a good reason, children are best placed in their own room and in a bed. Most children move to a bed from about 18 months up to about three years.
A good rule of thumb is when your child looks too big for the cot or he is jumping or climbing in and over the rails. Remember safety at this point: Where can you child get to if he gets out of bed? Do you need to get a child gate for a doorway or top of a stairs? Hold off on making big moves if a child is unwell.
3. Crossing the road independently and safely
Crossing the road should be handled like all safety situations and children should receive independence in little steps. That might mean graduating from firm handholding to gentle looser handholding, to staying right next to the parent or holding a pram and then a more natural gap between parent and child. Parents need to talk to and teach about the dangers of traffic including unexpected dangers like driveways, looking both ways even on one-way streets and car parks.
Choose safer routes to travel on to avoid that nerve-wracking junction where there are too many things to consider for a positive teaching experience. Always model safety: Use pedestrian crossings when possible. When there are no pedestrian crossings choose a narrow or safe spot and don’t cross the road diagonally. Never dart across the road because the light hasn’t changed. Modelling safety teaches safety. Talk about why you are approaching road safety the way you do so your child doesn’t just copy you but knows why something is a good idea.
4. Washing and dressing with ease
Be positive about teaching children to brush their teeth, take care of themselves in the bath or shower and dress and undress with some independence. Start by picking a new task for your child to learn. It could be as simple as instead of just dressing your child you hand him a tee-shirt and say ‘Let me see you put on your shirt’ and then ‘well done.’
Choose one task at a time. Begin by asking what needs to be done; if the child doesn’t know, tell them. But if they can’t do it themselves, do it with them until they are able to do so independently. You’ll find that you will do less of the ‘Doing’ part after more attempts. But remember that children can be so different to one another so praise attempts and tolerate the initial delay or mess.
5. Getting to sleep independently
It is a good idea for parents to encourage their children to get to sleep independently for several reasons. One is that it encourages self-soothing (a skill we all use to manage our feelings), but also it frees up parents to have some non-child time.
The graduated style of teaching this skill is one way to help a child to get to sleep independently. This means taking small, gentle steps in that direction. So you might come into your child’s room in the beginning if they call out for you and after some nights go only to the door, later reassure by calling up to him in a gentle voice that you are there.
Tucking your child in at night is important even as they get older but independence can come in the form of some quiet reading alone. Bear in mind that if your child has attachment concerns, is unwell or distressed he may need you to hold off on encouraging independence in this area for a while.
✓ Feeding themselves proficiently
There does come a time when your child needs to be able to feed themselves. That should be well in-place by about three and if they are going to pre-school, they should be able to open their lunch box and feed themselves with minimal assistance.
“As frustrating and time consuming as it may be to have a toddler demand he be allowed to dress himself or brush his teeth first thing in the morning, it is important to let him do it. Preparation is the key! Give yourself plenty of time, taking into consideration that if your little one insists on brushing his teeth, it is going to take longer than it would if you were to do it. In our house, compromise and negotiation worked a treat. If one of my daughters insisted on putting on her shoes herself, we would agree to do one shoe each.
Often, if time was truly against us, one my daughter would happily agree to brush her doll’s teeth while I brushed hers, or put socks on her teddy while I dressed her. Even when time pressure is not an issue, helping your child become more independent is a true test of your patience! Children learn from their mistakes. Remember, by teaching them independence, you are furnishing them with coping skills for life and teaching them responsibility.” Anne Reid
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